Focus, relax, repeat

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I’ve come to an odd conclusion:  I should have been my Grade 8 typing teacher.  (Come to think of it, if I had also been my Grade 3 piano teacher it would have spared me a lot of wasted time and frustration and heartache.)

I’ve been fussing about with keyboard-type devices since elementary school, but it took many years to come to an undeniable epiphany:  It takes just as long to hit the right key as it does to hit the wrong one.  Until fairly recently my typing could be described as “dirty”:  flail away and hit about 98% of the right letters, pausing to fix the wrong ones and then carrying on for another 98%.

The first breakthrough was when I realized that typing just a bit slower would improve the hits-to-misses ratio.  Doing that, I also began to feel a cadence and tried to even out the rhythm and the speed, not blasting through common combinations like “the”  or “and” while crawling through words like “constitution” or “exacerbate.”

A six-year stint in an accounting office gave me fluency on the number keys at the top of the keyboard, making them as accessible as the letters and punctuation.  The only key that still gives me a spot of trouble is that awkwardly long reach to the “6.”  In time I could touch-type the top-row punctuation as well without searching for $ or &.

Gradually I went from looking at the keys to watching my hands.  Then I kept my attention on the screen and tried to ignore my hands.  Then I pushed the screen into the background of my awareness and started listening to the words, either by talking myself through a phrase or mentally hearing it in my head.  My current project is to stop listening and just let data stream through my hands.

The things that have helped the most:

  1. Work as slowly as necessary to create 100% accuracy with good form.  If that means deliberately typing at 20 words per minute, do it.  The speed will return soon enough.
  2. Be alert for tension — in the hands, the arms, even in the face or legs.  It wastes enormous amounts of energy and it creates a nasty habit of seizing up when things get difficult.

This all sprang to mind because of a couple of recent experiences.  At my clarinet lesson on Monday evening, my teacher pushed me to play a scale somewhat faster than usual.  I said “Yeah, I’ll give it a try,” and it worked.  When I realized that it had worked, I blinked and had a “wow” moment.  It shattered a paradigm that had plagued me for decades, a self-image of not having the same physical quickness as my peers.  Apparently I was wrong.

Today at work, in the middle of typing a long letter from dictation, my hands naturally synchronized with the voice on the recording and, like at the clarinet lesson the night before, I gave myself the benefit of the doubt and just relaxed and typed.  A couple of paragraphs later I realized how effortless everything had become.

Mastering a skill is a bit like a teeter-totter:  First you have to furrow your brow and think really hard and pay attention to every detail; then you have to smooth out the wrinkles in your forehead, clear your mind, and trust that all the details are in place, ready to use; then it flips back to the meticulous focus on detail, then to the relaxing-and-just-doing side.

When something isn’t quite working, slow down and look at it.  Play with it and fix the things that are giving you the most trouble.  When it’s working well, that’s when you can push yourself to a new level — but gently, with curiosity and trust.


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